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Two Original One-Acts: "The Spider" and "Cue Line"/Marred Bliss (More Short Plays at Sheffield's)

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TWO ORIGINAL ONE-ACTS: "THE SPIDER" AND "CUE LINE"

Conquest Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

MARRED BLISS (MORE SHORT PLAYS AT SHEFFIELD'S)

at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

The title of Conquest Theatre Company's first venture--"Two Original One-Acts"--isn't exactly a barn burner. But then neither are the one-acts, actors' exercises written by and for the artists of this new troupe. Their goal, it seems, is more to stretch the talents onstage than to engross an audience. The most curious choice was to call these works "original": one is a blatant Pirandello clone, the other a by-the-numbers chiller. That leaves only the performances, and here Conquest can't live up to its brave name.

Cue Line, by actor John Farrimond, at first recalls a Second City improv exercise: whenever a new actor entered a scene the setting was switched and the story enlarged, creating a progressively more populous sketch. But unfortunately Cue Line doesn't get bigger--this one-joke sketch just pursues the same path Pirandello charted seven decades ago, though he had much more to say, in Six Characters in Search of an Author. Here there are only three characters (played by Dean Dedes, Stephanie Manglaras, and Farrimond), who flounder around, waiting in Beckettian fashion for cues that never come and tormenting themselves with tedious accusations and impish assaults on each other.

The characters (who are also, but inconsistently, hammy thespians) search for the script that will explain who they are (a symbol!). When the beleaguered Writer (Michael Thibeault) arrives to set them straight, the silly role seekers attack him, then storm into the audience looking for their lines and grab the Director (Elizabeth Swan), who is desperate to prevent them from reading the last page. Of course they rip it from her, read "blackout"--and disappear forever. If only they'd found the script 20 minutes sooner . . .

Energetically directed by Ruth Batts, these five plucky actors can't counteract the archness of Farrimond's quirky, self-referential playlet, a banal example of an obsession that often afflicts young dramatists--seeing the theater as metaphor.

The short curtain raiser, Bradley Jefferson's The Spider, is a sinister puzzler: an old woman (Lea Tolub) is confronted by a young man (Farrimond) who pretends to be a pizza deliveryman. He is in fact the illegitimate son of her dead husband, here to avenge his father's murder. Pulling out a revolver, she turns the tables and equalizes the menace--and, boringly, that's just how the sketch ends.

The play's as obvious as it sounds, and Batts's broad staging keeps it that way. Oddly Farrimond gives the boy's threats the same expansive delivery you'd expect from a public service announcement; Tolub brings a hint of mystery to a part that begs for it.

A more successful evening of one-acts, playing off-nights at Sheffield's, shows that short needn't mean dull. A sequel to the worthy "Short Plays at Sheffield's," performed earlier this year, "Marred Bliss (More Short Plays at Sheffield's)" is a series of one-acts with similar themes first performed at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

The subject is unresolved relationships--the exes whose survival once the bloom is off seems to freeze our mistakes in time. Though two of the plays are quiet and two aren't, this thematic connection provides a certain unity. Unfortunately, it also reduces the evening's range and lowers the quality (especially compared to the first series). There's no question director Jimmy Bickerstaff could have found stronger one-acts if he hadn't been tied to the theme of amorous postmortems.

The craziest offering is Mark O'Donnell's Marred Bliss, a silly depiction of the awkward meeting between an engaged couple and their envious exes. The joke is that everyone speaks in Freudian malapropisms and spoonerisms, like "foul airs" for "flowers" and "conglomerations" for "congratulations." Clearly O'Donnell is able to toss these off in his sleep: "We've been enraged for a year," "Fantasy seething you here," "My shit is in rancor in the harbor and they gave me whore leave," "How's the nervy?" "I was born to be a soiler," and "At least I'm not diddled with funereal disease."

A little of this goes a galactic distance, but Marred Bliss is mercifully short. The cast--Helene Augustyniak, Peter Garino, Peter Curren, and Paula Harrigan--have handled the prodigious memorization like troupers and wisely play things much more seriously than they deserve.

Equally silly but much more nasty is Apres Opera, by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Valerie Smith. An ex-lover hoping to relight the fire learns that his ex has invited her narcoleptic fiance to dinner with them. After the fiance passes out, she gives him hypnotic suggestions that almost make him kill her ex. Like Marred Bliss, this play charts the kind of one-joke territory The Carol Burnett Show mapped out ages ago. But the cast treat it like a new discovery, supplying a saving freshness.

Murphy Geyer actually gives some psychological insight to The Interrogation, in which an ex-lover (Curren) proves monomaniacally curious about the men his former flame might be taking to bed. Augustyniak as the pestered lady has a great moment when she taunts the humorless loser with a torrid but fictitious anecdote about her recent trip to the Caribbean. Though the ending's pat, happily the actors don't seem to have noticed.

Steven Dietz's cryptic, forgettable After You details the talky encounter between two ex-lovers who reenact a favorite pastime. As he shaves her legs (a symbol of her continued vulnerability?), they lament what might have been. Garino strikes the right note of elegiac regret, but Harrigan's bemusement at his retroactive adoration seems a bit cruel--or, in the context of this life-style play, "inappropriate," as the psychologists say.

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